Hayek, planning and eugenics

In Friedrich Hayek’s magnificent essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, Hayek writes:

It is about this question that all the dispute about “economic planning” centers. This is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done or not. It is a dispute as to whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.

After writing my recent post on Richard Conniff’s article about Irving Fisher’s eugenic leanings, it struck me that a similar framing can be made with respect to eugenics.

The debate about eugenics, apart from being one-sided, is normally framed as to whether there should be centralised planning about who should be able to breed (or not). However, without eugenic decisions from the top, there is still planning about who breeds and who doesn’t. This is in the form of sexual selection, with males and females choosing their partners with the aim of having smarter, more attractive children. The result of this process is that some people do not get to reproduce, despite their wish to, due to the decisions of others.

Accordingly, this is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done to not, It is a dispute about whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole population, or is to be divided among many individuals.

5 comments


  1. The result of this process is that some people do not get to reproduce, despite their wish to, due to the decisions of others.

    in a non-malthusian context this really should read: “some people do not get to reproduce to people whom they would tolerate reproducing with, despite their wish to….”

  2. You make a good point, and one that Razib Khan has made in the past in his posts. However I think the situation is a bit more nuanced than you present, especially when it comes to things beyond simple selection of partners. For example, Razib has previously written about PGD, IVF, and related medical technologies as a way for parents to try to influence traits of their offspring, and certainly there are lots of things governments could do (or not do) that would determine the extent to which such technologies were used in practice, and who was able to use them. Governments could ban use of these technologies, regulate them in various ways (e.g., permit uses relating to prevention of genetic diseases but try to prohibit use for sex selection), subsidize them either directly or indirectly, subsidize certain uses but not others, and so on. (And of course similar issues are present with abortion and contraception.)

    I’m not advocating any particular policy here, I’m simply pointing out that a simple “central planning vs. individual choice” framing doesn’t capture the complexity of the political issues I think are going to arise in this space. For example, I can easily think of policies that superficially were about respecting individual choice but in practice amounted to government “putting its thumb on the scale” to promote certain centrally-decided outcomes.

    1. It is an interesting spin on the problem when you consider those new technologies. The suite of instruments of planning in the hands of individuals are increasing, which also changes the potential, consequences and likelihood of government intervention. It is still a debate about who plans rather than whether planning occurs at all, but it is a much muddier one.

  3. Nicely done, Jason.

    My own view is that, consistent with Ostrom, that we really need to develop a much better understanding of collective action problems / concerns and the nature of collective action by groups than we currently possess. There are some decisions – most, in my view – that ought to be the purview of the individual alone but collective action problems are rife in society, and they can only be handled (if at all) through some form of collective action. This does not mean “planning” by some central authority, I am more thinking of Hayek’s emphasis on the emergence of institutions in society. I think also that complexity theory should help a lot in this domain because it is a framework suitable to making sense of emergent collective action problems (such as recessions) and the limits of centralised planning.

    Best wishes,

    Greg

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